Island Time: South Pacific Futurism From a Contemporary Aotearoa Perspective


In this text, which moves between a personal account and a Māori understanding of time, Jessica “Coco” Hansell envisions a future in Aotearoa (New Zealand) that could simultaneously be the precolonial past and the future, where legendary figures move in the plasma ocean with spacecraft canoes.

When I was 11 years old I sat in a support-group style circle, on wooden chairs. I was silently facing my four year-old self (rowdy epileptic with long hair down to my butt), my eight year-old self (a short shaved undercut who wore a blue ski jacket every day) and my form as of that moment (some vanilla mid-length preteen blend of the two). There was another girl; she was a lot older than all of us. I couldn’t tell if she was an adult. She didn’t smile or say much, I remember she wore a hoodie, and I envied her pierced ears.

I’m wearing a hoodie and hoop earrings as I write this. I also don’t smile excessively, so all signs point to her being the sloppy final-form I embody today. It was a strange, quick and formative dream. One I return to whenever eurocentric descriptions around time aren’t really doing it for me, which is often. I think about time, a lot. And yet I’ve been told by many I am not interested in time enough.

While a slab of the planet is happily sweating under summer, in Aotearoa (New Zealand) we are currently surrendering to winter. The sky is crisp but short-lived. In certain cities like Tāmaki Makaurau (Tāmaki of a Hundred Lovers, or Auckland) the sun still loiters a little. However a thrifty tough-love for uninsulated homes, cyclonic hangovers from the South Pacific ocean and drizzly morning drives to underpaying jobs make it brutal enough. The colonial dominant view of the British means a perpetual robbery of the holistic interpretations of Mori. There is a constant reclaiming, returning. A resentful epiphany is always afoot growing up Indigenous in any cityscape, our roots constantly excavated (rightfully stolen back in the night when the Gods are in our favor). Winter is no exception, or more specifically Matariki; the Māori new year which kicks off amid the frosty clutches of June.

Matariki is the nine-star Pleiades cluster which appears in the night sky annually. According to the Maramataka (the Māori lunar calendar), the reemerging of Matariki concludes our old lunar year and marks a fresh one. Crop health was predicted during Matariki and it’s still considered a time of renewal, to reflect upon our past while appraising our future prospects, both with equal intensity. I love how this time lands awkwardly in the meaningless midriff of a Gregorian calendar. The visceral seasonal shift is genuinely felt by the body, the sky and seedlings in the dirt. Change is undeniable, whereas the bored mathematical shrugs of January have a lot to answer for.

Coco Hansell Funambulist1
“Maui Records label design” by Joe Wylie (circa 1984). / Te Papa Tongarewa collection.

I remember a man saying to me once he had only seen his own blood twice in his life and all going well, he had no plans to see it again. I who had seen monthly menstruation blood for decades realized we had very different senses of how time (and perhaps body as both an organic and anarchistic land-mass) worked. Again, I embodied that casual but constant return to a truth. In the involuntariness of what I simply was, I got to be a pixelated blind-spot next to his smooth and bloodless truck. No need for mirrors. Could I tell him about Waiwhero, Māori for the red waters that link us to our creation Gods regarded genealogically speaking as a river of power? Probably not. I smirked because that’s what I often do when I don’t know where to fucking start. Countless cultures across the globe know this.

Futurism grounded in my Māori and Samoan indigeneity is like that for me. When you are overseas you have to get used to being the only Māori and or Samoan and or Nu Zilinduh some people have ever met and probably will ever meet. We’re a long way away from supposedly grander civilisations and we’re usually white-washed by tourism stills or worse, swallowed and soldered to Australia. People want you to say you love Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, they don’t want to hear about Indigenous homelessness, suicide rates, prison rates, land confiscation that still goes on to this day. And so you are used to being a shrubbery-rich shopfront that people sprint by. You smirk because, where do you begin?

What if I told you that my meeting with my three other selves was not a dream? That it really happened? That within that meeting I encountered self and ancestors all at once, for they are an inextricable feedback loop that goes on for eternity. That when I walk forward into the Western idea of a linear future, that I am in fact stepping back into my past and my descendants are steeped as much in my historical arrival as they are yet to be realised. Time is a spiral and — when it’s not being co-opted by countless corporations to imply an inclusiveness its ass can’t cash — the koru symbol expresses a spiral of repetition and returning, a perpetual ever-moving centre. Literally an immortal coil. Based on the shape of an unfurling fern in the ongoing midst of opening, this shape expresses perpetual activation, movement. Its inward coil conveys an equally ongoing return to the point of origin. The koru tells us life will change beyond our wildest dreams while staying exactly the same. The perceived stone age Māori are relegated to is frustrating in one sense, because we are evolved and equipped for all of the advancements the world has to offer. In another sense I think of the great Tuhoe Tohunga — a Tohunga in reductive terms is a Māori healer or priest of a sort — Hohepa Kereopa, who playfully and truthfully implied in his one of his three landmark biographies by Paul Moon that while we have stone in our pocket we are living in the stone age and why wouldn’t the stone age always be now?

The late Dalvanius Prime was an iconic Māori entertainer, producer, songwriter and advocate. He has a string of accomplishments which can be seen in detail in the 2016 documentary Poi-E, named after a global hit/movement he spearheaded in the 1980s which radicalized pop cultural perceptions of Māori for many, including Māori themselves. In this context however, I am most drawn in by Maui Records — his vision for a Māori Motown-like record label. The label boasting a stable of what Prime had hoped to be revolutionary artists was driven by aesthetics and concepts of Aotearoa Futurism. In landmark images Prime had artist Joe Wylie design, traditional signifiers of Māoridom were lacquered in chrome, ancient figures like Maui — a prevalent trickster across many Polynesian mythologies — set anchor from waka, the exterior more akin to a spaceship than a wooden canoe. Even the waters he seems to be sailing have a supple plasma quality. It is the kind of imagery that allows Māori and Pasifika storytellers to ground themselves amid the complexities of speculative fiction with a comparative and contextual ease — invasion metaphors abound and yet the Polynesian world also offers an abundance of imagery that can easily marry the ancient with the “advanced,” rendering time to appear more playful, more truthful.

In the two-part radio documentary produced by Sophie Wilson and Dan Taipua for Radio New Zealand, they unpack Aotearoa Futurism, Space Maori, Astronesians, Polyfuturists, South Pacific Futurists as the Oceanic sibling of Afro Futurism. While offering an oral history of Pacific practitioners who have worn this belt of stars throughout time, Wilson cites the cluster of labels as being held within a kete — a woven basket made of flax in which Māori store their treasures both literally and existentially.

This kete, we’ve decided, describes Maori who imagine, create or are receptive to ideas that play with, and sometimes even obliterate, the boundaries of technology and time.”

I heavily identify with this brief, which is probably why you can hear my 2 cents — that’s 0.00129 euros — in the doco amid the psychedelic wishery of my peers, be they living or dead. The hardest thing to convey always seems to be that such statuses don’t always matter to us. I think of the chrome canoe, I think of Maui Records comprised of reptilian robot artwork and ambitious music to match. I think it perfectly plausible when floated the idea that perhaps that’s how things actually were back in the day for my ancestors. Obviously I am fond of chronological upheavals and spiritual parody as practice. But we see medieval times unfurling within the future of the west on a daily basis. So why not entertain these concepts beyond novel?

Coco Hansell Funambulist2
“Kuki” by Rarotongan artist Tokerau Wilson who uses the idea of the Wheke (Octopus) as an internal fortress/challenger for Pacific people. / Courtesy of the artist.

Coconut water can be used, on emergency occasions, as an intravenous fluid. While it’s not identical to blood plasma, it’s similar enough to actually be used as an emergency replacement for fluids due to being high in potassium and low in sodium. In western Samoa where my grandparents are from, there are niu, baby coconuts everywhere. I imagine the South Pacific Islands flipping the white script that defines them to submerged climate change after-thought (so sad/so boring). What about a medical mecca where the bloodlines still run strong; fuelled by airborne boats, a science fiction-esque premise that leads them to wealth of all definitions, and a tiny bit of coconut juice.

Have you ever experienced “island time” where the warm climate and social conditions have more of a say in how your day transpires? It’s freeing, humbling, comical and humiliating if you are on the colonial clock. Island time is historically depicted as a behavioral realm of vague-promising and under-delivering. Late arrivals, disregard for order and the prioritizing of mood over responsibility. If you are not used to meshing your mindset with things beyond your obligations, this is reasonable assumption. But yeah, it’s racist. I think because this ‘mode’ is at odds with the expectations of empire and individuality. It prioritizes the nature of things, not how we wish the nature of things to be. Think of it like no-promising and over-delivering, sometimes outside of working hours. In his book The Woven Universe, a Ngāpuhi Tohunga, the Rev. Maori Marsden writes:

The Māori approach to life is holistic. There is no sharp division between culture, society and their institutions. Because of his holistic approach the Māori avoids the disjunction between the secular and spiritual, the compartmentalisation and isolation of one institution from another, and the piecemeal approach to problem and conflict resolution.       

And for a civilization hell-bent on lamenting the fickleness of nature, we sure have a predictable return to it.
A plastic-bag ban and penchant for organic food is not a retaliation, just wasted centuries of told-you-so drowned out by oil drill throttles. I believe Indigenous knowledge can save the world and lead us to a futuristic frontier that only historic cautionary clues can co-author. Futurism, for me, is the ultimate inversion and return.